The track is straight, the jockeys wear jeans, the odds are split as to whether the entrants will find their way to the finish line, and there are two basic rules: No. 1) Hold on for dear life. No. 2) Remember rule No. 1. Welcome to camel and ostrich racing, the biggest event in the tiny town (pop. 900) of Virginia City, Nev.—known in its wild West heyday as a gambling and prostitution hot spot.
This year’s 100-yard camel race and ostrich sprint continued the grand tradition of an event that began 29 years ago as a hoax. On a slow news day back in 1959, a Virginia City newspaper, the Territorial Enterprise, ran the results of a fictitious camel race. The San Francisco Chronicle unwittingly reprinted the piece as fact. The next year, attempting to make good on their goof, editors from the Chronicle rented a camel from the city zoo and challenged the Enterprise to a 100-yard dromedary dash. The late film director John Huston, in the Sierras filming The Misfits, rode and won for the Chronicle, and a tradition was born. The ostrich sprint was added two years later.
This time around, 32 riders, all volunteers, took turns (by drawing names from a hat) atop eight camels. Some of the jockeys complained that their 7-foot, 1,500-lb. charges induced motion sickness. Others, like “Fast Eddie” Jackson, a bellhop at Bally’s in Reno, lamented the animals’ lack of direction. “They run like turtles,” said Jackson, who wore a magenta turban and a glittering blue toga. “First left, then right.” Eddie’s mount, Willy, headed stubbornly for the bleachers.
The camel races were interspersed with the ostrich sprints. Six drivers wielded kitchen brooms to keep the three 300-lb. feathered steeds—they ran in twos—on track.
Dale Dunn, a 35-year-old warehouse manager, was the camelcade’s winner. The secret of his success? “I had no strategy,” said Dunn. “But I did have a few beers beforehand.”